My daughter is high-waisted and low-voiced. Already when she bends down to pull on pajamas, I can see she will not have flared bat wing hips like mine but will stand solid and narrow like a Greek column. She will be tall, trim, singularly herself. At six, she wears skinny jeans and tissue tees. She wears her soccer medal to school. For breakfast she likes Nutella on bread, untoasted, with orange juice, no pulp.
On the day of her birth, I ate an apple on the couch and my water broke. I could feel it ping inside me like a rubber band. It was 1:00 p.m. on a Friday in May. “But no one has a baby during banker’s hours!” I said to my husband, who was in the kitchen fixing a sandwich.
At the hospital, I crawled out of the elevator on my hands and knees. In photos taken just minutes later, holding my daughter in my arms, my hair and glasses not even mussed since the birth was so fast there was no time to get into the requisite hospital gown.
For months before I had my daughter, I knew I would name her Lucy. But when she emerged so frantically fast – a so-called “precipitous birth” – our thoughts pinballed to indecision and chaos. There was a dry erase board on the wall in my hospital room, and Mark wrote “Lucy” on it in his tiny scrawl.
“It isn’t right,” I said to Mark. “Write ‘Lily’ up there.”
He did. Lily. Lilies are hearty and resilient flowers, not prone to wilting or fragile stems. A lily stands up tall, announces itself loudly like a trumpet. That was the kind of daughter I wanted.
When Lily was two, she hid cans of 7UP in her dresser drawers. At two and a half, she potty-trained in Vietnam. Knowing we’d be living there for 6 months, we’d shipped cartons of diapers over beforehand, but they arrived too late. Lily learned to go over pits, holes and squat toilets.
Lily is now six and has an ipod, and on it are the Jonas Brothers, Katie Perry’s “California Girls” and Jason Mraz. She likes to pretend she’s a pop star and will sometimes break dance on her bedroom floor.
Lily possesses a feistiness I don’t know that I ever had or ever will. When I was a first-grader, I wore calico dresses and tights with tennis shoes and clung to my mother’s leg when we’d go out. I was shy, quiet, had a very difficult time raising my hand in class (something that followed me all the way through college). At a recent parent-teacher conference, the report said of Lily: reads above grade level – exceeds academic expectations – a bit too talkative – could work neater. It was a good report, but as an educator myself, I knew her kind – the chatty student that you like having in class but who sometimes bothers with her eagerness to entertain others.
Lily walks with confidence and conviction. In the mornings, we can always tell if it’s her coming down the stairs because she stomps loudly and announces herself before entering: “Everybody! I’m up!” She expects a lot out of the world, and assumes it will freely give her what she needs and wants. She can be bitchy and irate when her expectations aren’t met. “But why can’t Santa get me the Wonder Jet Flight Simulator from the catalogue?” When I tell her it’s 200 dollars, which is a lot, even for Santa, she pouts and storms out of the room.
Often, though, it’s an intangible, sought-after quality she dreams of inhabiting. We were watching football the other night when the Dallas Cowboys made an amazing 101-yard interception and touchdown. “Do you think I could do that?” Lily asked. I said, “Oh my god. Of course you could.” But she seemed worried. “But what if I couldn’t catch the ball?” she asked. “You would,” I said. “You’d practice a lot and learn, just like these guys.” She sat back and crossed her arms, confident that the deal was sealed: yes, she could absolutely be a millionaire NFL football player someday.
Her “go-getterness” is not always so heartwarming, though. She can be snarly and surly and borderline mean. I once overheard her berating her older brother for a very slight misdeed; the vitriolic tone of her voice made me put my hand to my mouth. She can also be cocky and inflated in her assumptions about herself. Recently her brother had a friend over and they made an elaborate fort. Two nine-year-old boys, they didn’t want a little sister hanging around. Later we found a letter she’d written to them and shoved under their door. It read:
I want to go in your fort so one of you has to choose. I feel sad. So write to me that says what you want to do.
When they wrote back and said she could come in the room but not in the fort, she was pissed. She wrote them again:
But I never get to go in the fort. P.S. I am mad at both of you.
Later, she spent hours with them in the fort.
Still, this is the complicated part: I celebrate all of these traits in Lily because she is a girl, just as I celebrate the way my son loves to cuddle in velvet and fleece blankets or the way he notices a new pair of earrings I’m wearing. I want a strong girl and a sensitive boy, and realize that everything we do, everything we don’t do, feeds this. Soccer for Lily, piano for her brother, no princess frou-frou for Lily, no football paraphernalia for her brother. In fact, when Lily was enrolled in a dance class and was required to clip her bangs back to emulate a true “ballerina,” we pulled her from the class and switched her to swimming lessons.
My mother, were she alive, would roll her eyes at so many of our battles. “You two overanalyze everything!” she’d say. And it’s true. But my mother expected so little from the world – and got exactly that much. Instead of a decent kitchen or respect or a solid paycheck, she got a husband who played the lottery and hid scratch-offs in his underwear drawer. She got two daughters, one who would stay close to her and live nearby and the other, who would find ways to get what I wanted, but sometimes at great cost. My daughter must never know this, how hard it is, how much struggle is ahead of her.
But here’s another complicated part: I, female, love to shop. Mark, male, loves to watch football: okay. But we both love to cook. Mark does all the laundry. I mow the lawn. These are the good examples. Our children will also, however, experience us in all our contradictions and flaws and hypocrisies. We both probably drink too much wine in front of them, which I was reminded of when Mark came home the other day with a case of pinot noir and both kids argued over whose turn it was to fill up the wine rack. One day Mark wants to throw them in the air and wrestle, and the next day he says, “Not now. I have to finish this chapter.” I will go on a spree of ice cream buying and let them have dessert every night until one day I find it too much and say, “No dessert! You don’t need to have dessert every night!” None of these behaviors are particularly gendered, or so we like to think.
But Lily, as my daughter, looks at me differently than my son. She is watching me closely with her dark brown eyes. She is waiting for a sign, a nod of permission to follow, an admonition to keep up with me, and then, pumping her arms – to race ahead of me with precipitous speed.